Teresa Jacobs

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Incumbent, Orange County School Board Chair

Public Service

  • Chair, Orange County School Board ,  2018 to present

  • Mayor, Orange County Government, 2011-2018

  • Commissioner, Orange County District 1, 2001-2009

Occupation

Orange County School Board chair

Education

Florida State University, B.S., Economics

Religion

Catholic

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs — a Republican who has helmed the school system through Covid, mask mandates, book bans and a host of new controversial state laws targeting school culture and curricula — is running for another four-year term, drawing two opponents both of whom espouse controversial conservative ideas such as eliminating the teaching of critical race theory and other “parental rights.”


Parental rights is code for a broad right-wing, conservative culture movement aimed at rolling back federal civil rights protections for Black, Brown and LGBTQ students, banning certain types of curricula and eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, among other items (see also this story and another story about the issue).

Politically conservative groups, namely Moms for Liberty, are supporting candidates across the county, Florida and nation against what they say is a liberal bent in education. Recently, the group held an event in Tampa where Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke. Since being elected, DeSantis has waged a culture war, pushing through legislation to outlaw “woke ideology” in classrooms such as teaching CRT (a law-school discipline that has never been taught in public schools).


Influence Magazine recently wrote that Jacobs “may represent the last stand of public education’s establishment against the Moms for Liberty movement.” Still, it said that her “grassroots popularity was so high” coming off her second term as Orange County mayor that “she got elected School Board Chair in 2018 by 27 points over a high-profile, well-funded Democrat, in a county dominated by Democrats.”


It appears she’s still popular or, at least, better known than her challengers, Demensio Barton and Carl Brewer Jr. In a July 26 straw poll held by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, Jacobs garnered 82 votes to Barton’s 34 and Brewer’s 9.


At a July 25 Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board interview with Jacobs and Barton (Brewer was not in attendance), Jacobs said that she has run in nonpartisan races “and that’s not a coincidence” because politics can get in the way of teaching students. She said Tallahassee has passed several laws that lack clarity, creating uncertainty for how schools should follow them. For instance, the Republican-dominated legislature passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that bans K-3 classroom instruction on gender-related matters and then be “age appropriate” after that, but didn’t provide formal guidance for teachers.

Later in the interview, she said that law is ambiguous around what teachers and counselors can reveal to parents about what students talk to them about their sexual orientation or identity. Jacobs said she and the school board have supported them through “pride” displays in every school (except elementary schools) and through implementation of gay-straight alliance clubs. She said students need someone other than their parents to talk to about these issues and trust them.


Jacobs also mentioned a lot of confusion over “social-emotional learning,” or SEL. When she was first elected, she said the board added SEL to its strategic plan. It teaches tenets such as self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness. While the state Department of Education last year issued a memo to math book publishers not to include CRT and SEL in textbooks, she said a new law (HB7) requires schools to teach “life skills,” which espouses those same exact tenets taught under SEL. “This is where Tallahassee is not helpful to us, when they are telling us two separate things that contradict each other.”


However, Jacobs said another state decree that bans the teaching of CRT, has never been taught in schools nor was it allowed before the new rules.”I think that it’s extremely unfortunate that so much energy and anger has been spent on a non-issue,” she added.

School safety was another issue brought up in the interview. Jacobs said she’s concerned about whether OCPS faculty and staff will follow safety protocols “religiously,” which will be discussed in a closed-door session. While schools have conducted active shooter drills with every school having one or two armed officers, she also said she’s worried about ensuring emergency radio communications between law enforcement officers in large school buildings.


While Jacobs supported mask mandates, the school board has wavered over whether to follow federal guidelines on masking or the state law banning them. When it did defy the state law, it imposed a 60-day mandate for everyone in schools last year, which expired at the end of October. It then reimposed a 60-day mask mandate only for adults earlier this year.

OCPS also bypassed its formal process to review books challenged as “dangerous” by parents and others, preemptively removing challenged books from school libraries. In a letter to the school board last November, the National Coalition Against Censorship chided the board for its decision. “By exempting certain challenges from the District’s regulations, the District has deprived itself, and its students, of the advantages of this very sound policy,” it said.


In the nonpartisan school board race, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent on Aug. 23 then the top two finishers will have a runoff election on Nov. 8.

— Dibya Sarkar